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Organizers hope Biden's support of Amazon unionization advances broader efforts

The president’s remarks “could well be the most pro-union statement by a sitting president,” one expert said.
Image: Amazon fulfillment center
More than 5,800 workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, will vote this month on whether to join a union. Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via AP file

Labor organizers celebrated President Joe Biden’s announcement this week that he supports worker unionization, including in Alabama, where Amazon workers in Bessemer are in the midst of a precedent-setting vote to form a union. As the second-largest employer in the country, with workers at its fulfillment centers and its Whole Food stores, Amazon until now has successfully resisted attempts at union organizing.

More than 5,800 workers at the Amazon warehouse outside of Birmingham will have the opportunity to vote this month to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. If successful, these workers will form the first union at any Amazon facility in the United States.

The message from the president, which he delivered Sunday in a Twitter video, is the highest level of support the Amazon workers have yet received from any politician during their union efforts.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in her Monday briefing that while the president cannot comment on specific cases before the National Labor Relations Board, “the president believes that workers should have the right to organize. That is a fundamental value he has and one that he has been consistent on for decades.”

“Biden’s message is going to support workers going against billion-dollar companies with endless resources who now know they have an ally at the top,” said Steve Smith, communications director of the pro-union advocacy group, California Labor Federation.

The Biden administration had been speaking with union organizers about the efforts in Alabama in recent weeks. A source familiar with the discussions confirmed that Stuart Appelbaum from the RWDSU spoke to Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, who then reached out to the White House about the upcoming vote.

Heather Knox, an Amazon spokeswoman, said the company offers a $15-an-hour starting wage, benefits and a clean working environment for its employees.

“For us, it will always be about providing a great employment experience through a direct connection with our employees and working together as a team to provide a world-class customer experience, and respecting rights to choose a union,” Knox said.

Amazon momentum

Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker who was fired last May after organizing a walkout over coronavirus concerns, said that Biden’s pro-union messaging so far could energize workers in other Amazon locations to start to organize, too.

“The president is making it clear that workers have the right to be part of a union,” said Smalls, who now runs the Congress of Essential Workers, a collective that fights for better pay and conditions.

Biden’s comments will, Smalls said, give workers “the courage” to start forming workplace committees while sending a message to Amazon that its “union-busting tactics” are “not tolerable.”

Amazon workers at fulfillment centers in Iowa have also reportedly started organizing a union drive this year with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University, says that Biden’s support of labor organizers could also potentially lead to more pro-worker policies.

“Having the president say something like this will inspire workers, but also workers organizing is part of what inspired the president,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Having labor law reform does not make organizing happen, as much as there’s a symbiotic relationship that forms.”

Historic implications

Well beyond Amazon, labor experts said that Biden’s pro-union comments are likely to galvanize workers across the United States.

“I think it’s enormously significant,” said John Logan, the director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. “In fact I would go so far as to say it could well be the most pro-union statement by a sitting president in U.S. history.”

Logan added that this signals broader support by the president for unionized workers.

“It could have a very positive impact on the outcome of not only that campaign, but beyond that it could have medium and longer term positive impacts on the fortunes of unions and organized labor in the United States.”

Not all academics agree that the union will be good for the Amazon workers in Bessemer. David Henderson, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Hoover Institution, says that while unions do tend to lead to a rise in wages for workers, it could amount to fewer jobs in the long run.

“When wages rise, employers let attrition reduce the number of people employed and so while it’s good on average for those who keep their jobs, it reduces opportunities for those who would otherwise get jobs,” Henderson said.

Union organizers say Biden’s actions since entering the White House and on the campaign trail should have a long-term impact, especially since he has endorsed high-level officials known for their support of worker organizing. Those officials include Pronita Gupta, who was appointed to advise the president on labor issues.

Gupta previously served as director of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor under President Barack Obama and as a consultant for the Service Employees International Union. Biden also nominated Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to head the Department of Labor. Walsh previously led the Boston Building Trades Council, a union group, before entering elected office.

“What we’re seeing from Biden is not just rhetoric, but action, starting with the PRO-Act and other things Biden has talked about with his platform,” said Smith, from the California Labor Federation. “This will bring tremendous energy among workers to join or form unions and frankly this gives workers an opportunity to stand, to gather that they haven’t had in decades.”

Warning Signs

The president’s message came at a time when some Amazon workers have felt that they have been threatened not to join a union. The president warned in his message that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no-threats, no anti-union propaganda.”

Amazon was required to stop its anti-union meetings for workers in Bessemer once the ballots went out on Feb. 7, according to national labor law. But workers organizing for the union in the Bessemer fulfillment center say the company has been actively working to dissuade them from joining the union.

“They got flyers in the bathroom, anti-union flyers in the bathroom, in the stalls. They got big banners, ‘Vote early, vote no.’ They got flyers in the break room beside the table and they got anti-union meetings. So they are doing everything they can to try to convince the people to vote no,” said Darryl Richardson, an employee at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, who has been working with RWDSU to organize the union drive.

“It’s important that employees understand the facts of joining a union; we will provide education about that and the election process so they can make an informed decision,” Knox, the Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it’s important associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon."

The PRO-Act, which was reintroduced by Democrats in February and Biden endorses, would strengthen protections for workers who are retaliated against by their employers in the course of organizing and ban mandatory meetings by employers intended to dissuade workers from joining a union.

Richardson said he and his colleagues were inspired to start their organizing effort after seeing people regularly walk out of work limping from the strain of the job and had their complaints ignored by human resources.

Richardson further described how Amazon workers get penalized for taking too long to use the bathroom or if they need to step away to get a drink of water and how he and his co-workers receive weekly text messages from the company about positive cases of Covid-19 in their facility.

“I think the union can come in and make it better. Make it where they can't treat us any kind of way. I'm just passionate about people getting treated fair, getting treated with respect, getting paid like they supposed to,” Richardson said. “Don't work us like robots.”

Geoff Bennett and Ezra Kaplan contributed.